Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Last Man

"Ishi," the last Yahi indian, died on this day in 1916 in San Francisco, California at the age of about 54.

Classic images of the last man on Earth: Charlton Heston, snarling at his civilized simian captors in Planet of the Apes? Kevin McCarthy, screaming in terror at the insidious pod replicants in Invasion of the Body Snatchers? The man known as Ishi, however, was the real thing.

His terror was real when he was 6 years old and a group of white settlers ambushed his village in the Sierra Nevada mountains and brutally slaughtered about 38 Yahi indians. Only a dozen Yahis survived the attack, hiding from the whites in caves and crevasses for over 40 years. By 1908, only four Yahi remained: Ishi, his mother, an old man, and a female cousin. Fleeing in fear after being discovered near Mill Creek, California, the old man and the female cousin drowned in the confusion, and a few weeks later Ishi's mother also died.

For 4 years thereafter, Ishi lived as the last man on Earth. He singed his own hair off out of grief and loneliness, but he continued to hunt and fish for his own survival in the wilds of Butte County, California -- until August 29, 1911, when he showed up in the town of Oroville, half-naked, starving and expecting to be executed like the rest of his race.

Only 21 years had passed since the massacre of the Lakota at Wounded Knee by the U.S. government. Perhaps it was the strangely humanistic, value-shifting tension encapsulated within the fact that Theodore Roosevelt had set aside 125 million acres in national forests by 1909 at the same time that the registration of over a half million private automobiles by 1911 signaled the coming of a consumer-based culture to replace the "land rush" ethic of the white pioneers -- or maybe it was just because there was only one of Ishi and dozens of whites in Oroville -- but the puzzled Oroville sheriff did not execute Ishi, instead deciding to place him in protective custody and attempting to provide him food like a good civil servant.

The news of the capture of this mournful, silent savage spread to the nearby University of California at Berkeley, where anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and linguist Thomas Waterman made arrangements to meet and interview him. Waterman tried to talk with the captive using words from a dictionary of the closely-related Yana language without much apparent success, until Waterman pointed to the wooden framework of the cot on which they sat and said "Siwini," which means "yellow pine." "Siwini," the captive repeated, "siwini!" He asked Waterman, "I ne ma Yahi?" or "are you an indian, too?," to which Waterman replied that he was.

Although the captive knew better than to believe it, at that moment he knew he had at least one friend in the world. Waterman and Kroeber named the captive "Ishi," which means "man" in Yana, since it would have been impolite to ask the man for his private Yahi name, and invited him to return with them to Berkeley.

There was nothing anyone could do to restore his race to him, but in his last years he did manage to shed light on his culture, traditions, ancient skills (such as flint-sharpening and bow-hunting) and language (famed linguist Edward Sapir studied with him extensively during 1915) for the benefit of modern science at the Berkeley Anthropological Museum.

When he died of tuberculosis a few years later, the last man on Earth took his private name with him into eternity, signifying the end of the saga of his tribe, but closing only one more chapter in the sad history of European ethnocide against the indigenous peoples of North America.



Blogger Holly said...

Thanks for this post. This story is not told nearly as often as it needs to be.

3:55 PM  

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